Jon Huntsman Sr. opens up about his life's triumphs and hardships in new autobiography

Associated Press

Thirty years ago, industrialist and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. hired an author to begin chronicling his life's stories in hopes of one day writing a book.

On Friday, at the age of 77, Huntsman released a nearly 450-page autobiography that tells the stories of how he went from growing up poor to being one of the richest and most powerful men in Utah. He said Friday at a news conference in Salt Lake City that he ended up hiring four authors over three decades to help him capture his tales.

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In the book, he discusses his personal, business and philanthropic triumphs — including details about the $1.4 billion he says he and his family have given away over the years.

But he also opens up publicly for the first time about several hardships, including the 1987 kidnapping of his son and the 2010 death of his daughter, who struggled for years with an eating disorder. He said it took him months to write the chapters on those two events.

He describes in great detail how he and FBI agents rescued his son in what he called a paralyzingly frightening ordeal that made the family aware of the dark side of wealth and prominence.

About his daughter Kathleen Ann Huntsman's death, he writes that he was the one who shut off the resuscitator to take his daughter off life support after she had a cardiac arrest and went into a coma.

"My children say I have not been the same since her passing," he writes in the book. "The grief over her loss continues to paralyze me when I dwell on it."

Huntsman is the founder and executive chairman of Huntsman Corp., a $12 billion company that makes raw materials that go into thousands of products. He is also the founder of the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City — a research center dedicated to finding a cure through human genetics. His parents and brother died of cancer.

Huntsman and his wife, Karen Huntsman, have nine children including Jon Huntsman Jr., a former governor of Utah and ambassador to China who ran for president in 2012.

Huntsman Sr. has served in several high-level leadership positions with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and writes that he has enjoyed close relationships with the past five church presidents, with whom he has been honest and straightforward.

"I represented a voice and opinion different from those of the president's full-time associates, most of whom would have responded carefully and safely, making sure their responses were inoffensive and complimentary," Huntsman writes.

Huntsman said he published the book now in part because he's concerned about his health and wanted to make sure he finished it. "Barefoot to Billionaire: Reflections on a Life's Work and a Promise to Cure Cancer." It's published by The Overlook Press.

"It's my story. Some of you may not agree with what I've said and how I've said it, but I've tried to be as frank as I can," Huntsman said Friday.

Looking ahead, Huntsman said he wants his cancer center to help make Utah the cancer research capital of the world.

He also spoke about his interest in buying The Salt Lake Tribune, which has been put on the market by its corporate owners. Huntsman said every community should have two distinct editorial voices and he's always respected the work done by the Tribune. Salt Lake City's other daily newspaper, the Deseret News, is owned by the Mormon church.

He said, however, that he would wait until a federal lawsuit challenging new terms of a joint operating agreement between the Tribune and the Deseret News is settled before talking more about a potential purchase.

"My interest in the Tribune has always been what's best for the community. I have no interest whatsoever in being a publisher or editor," he said. "I would hope that we would always have an independent paper in the state of Utah."